James Frey: Five Years Later, Part 1
Five years later, as James sits down with Oprah once again, he remembers that afternoon. "I wasn't sure what I was feeling. I was definitely stunned," he says. "And I just wanted to get home."
A few hours later, James arrived in New York City, where the aftershock of the show was already evident. "I was standing in the cab line [at LaGuardia Airport], and people were staring at me, taking pictures of me with their cell phones, and whispering and pointing," he says.
As James' cab drove across the Williamsburg Bridge toward his apartment, he says that a strange feeling came over him. "I was just sitting in the cab, staring out the window, and I just started laughing," he says. "I don't really know why I laughed, but I laughed pretty hard. ... I think the cab driver probably thought I was crazy. He had some hysterical lunatic laughing in the back of his car for no reason."
Once he arrived home, James says his wife hugged him and told him that she loved him. Then, he kissed his sleeping daughter and ended the difficult day.
To this day, James says that he's never watched that infamous episode of The Oprah Show from 2006. "I think of it as sort of a personal car crash for me," he says. "I just don't want to watch it. It was definitely not my finest day."
Oprah: Were you free, were you frustrated, were you angry with me? Did you think you'd been set up?
James: I mostly thought to myself, "How did I arrive at this place? How did I get here?" This is not what I ever set out to do. This is not who I wanted to be. This is not what I worked a lot of years for. I think, at times, yeah, there was anger. There was confusion. There was embarrassment. There was sadness. A lot of times, the most profound feelings we have, I don't think we have words for.
Oprah: Yes, it's difficult to articulate it, particularly when you're in it.
James: There were all those things. It was really like a moment-to-moment thing. It was just, "Get through this. Get through this. Get through this. It'll be fine. You'll be fine. Get through it." I was feeling a lot of things. It was a pretty overwhelming experience.
"When I look at the tape five years later with a different perspective, I wonder what was said to you that would make you say yes," Oprah says to James.
James says that he was not aware that the entire show would be about him and his book. "I was told the show was going to be called 'Truth in America' and that it was going to be a discussion about the flexible definition of truth, or if there is a flexible definition of truth," James says. "I was told it would be a sort of mannered discussion, I guess, or a reasonable discussion, and that I would have a chance to tell my side of it."
The moment James says he realized the show could take a different turn was just before he left his hotel to go to Harpo Studios. "We were going to wait for a car, and [journalists] Frank Rich and Richard Cohen were there," he says. "I got introduced to them, and I was like, 'What are you guys here for?' And one of them pointed at me and said, 'We're here for you.'"
Watch James talk about what happened when he arrived at the studio in 2006
James later commissioned a painting by artist Ed Ruscha to depict what the experience was like for him—it is titled Public Stoning and hangs in James' home today.
Yet, James says the fact that he has this painting doesn't mean he sees himself as a victim. "It reminds me of that experience in a way that keeps me on track now," he says. "That lets me know that I'm never going to let something like that happen again. I'm never going to make decisions that way again. I'm never going to make the same kinds of mistakes again. ... That painting, to me, isn't about [being] a victim of public stoning, because I don't think I am. I think whatever happened on that show and whatever happened because of A Million Little Pieces happened because of me. Because I made some bad choices."
Why publish the book as a memoir? James says that this was not his idea at first.
Watch James talk about his original intention for A Million Little Pieces
To understand why James ultimately decided to publish his book as a memoir instead of a novel, he explains how his writing career began two decades ago. "When I was 22, I read a book called Tropic of Cancer, and it actually changed my life. ... I couldn't believe somebody had expressed themselves in that way and told a story that way, and I couldn't believe somebody made me feel the way that book made me feel," James says. "When I closed that book, I said, 'That's what I'm going to do.'"
From age 22 to 31, James says he taught himself how to write a book. "I didn't go to graduate school. I didn't ever have a writing teacher. I just sat in a room alone for years trying to write a book. Trying to figure out how to write a book. Trying to figure out if I could do it," he says.
After several years, James did indeed write a book and was offered a publishing deal—though he says it wasn't necessarily how he imagined it would be published. "Nobody wanted to publish [A Million Little Pieces] as a novel. At a certain point, I got the opportunity to publish it as a memoir," he says. "It wasn't necessarily how I imagined it, but I wanted it published. I wanted it out in the world, and I said yes."
"I thought I was just talking to Sheri [Salata, a supervising producer at the time]," he tells Oprah. "A couple minutes into the phone call, you got on, and you told me you were choosing the book for your book club. I was sort of shocked and thrilled and really, really excited. And I remember hanging up the phone—my wife was downstairs with one of her friends, and they were at the kitchen table—and I walked downstairs. They said, 'How'd the call go?' And I said, 'Our life just changed.' I don't think I knew when I said that..."
"How prophetic that was," Oprah says.
"How prophetic that was," James says.
"I think there were opportunities to [stop what I had started], and I think I was scared to do it or didn't know how to do it," he says. "And I didn't do it. It was a mistake. It was a bad mistake."
Watch James talk about his doubts over promoting the book as a memoir
James says he now regrets making the decision to publish the book as a memoir but doesn't blame anyone but himself. "We can swing back to what a memoir is or isn't, what rules there are or aren't, what advice I got or didn't get. But at the end of this, the responsibility for that situation all has to come back to me," he says.
If he could do it all over again, James says he would have done things differently. "I would have been very clear when that book came out about what it was. And I would have been very clear about what I was trying to do when I wrote it," he says.
When James wrote the book, he says he was trying to change the way people think about things, to change lives in some way. "I definitely wasn't trying to write a self-help book," he says. "[But] I was trying to write a book that might help people—addicts or the family members or friends of addicts, that it would give them a different way to think about it."
"And it did," Oprah says. "It has."
"That was very humbling and amazing," James says. "I mean, to this day, I get letters almost every day about A Million Little Pieces. It's probably the greatest thing about what I do."
James says he was also sued several times after his memoir was revealed to be both fact and fiction. "On more than one occasion, I was walking down the street and somebody walked up and served me with legal papers," he says.
He continues, "We got sued for damages. ... I got sued for a lot of stuff by a lot of people. I had to hire attorneys, and ultimately, we settled all of it. We gave every reader who had purchased the book, up until that point, the opportunity to get their money back. It was surreal, and I was having a really hard time."
With the public scrutiny and frequent news reports on the memoir controversy, James decided to leave the country and live in France with his wife and daughter. "I love France, and it was great to just push my daughter's stroller down the street and just be some anonymous dad," he says.
Watch Oprah talk about the first phone call she received, condemning how she conducted the interview
At the time, Oprah says, she disagreed with critics who felt that she was too hard on James. "Did you think I was too hard on you?" she asks.
James answers, "I thought it was within your rights to conduct your show however you wanted to. I knew I had made a bad mistake."
"What did you think of the way it was conducted though?" Oprah asks again.
"I thought I got ambushed. Absolutely," James says. "[But] I think, even had I known what I was walking into, I probably still would have walked into it. ... At the end of it, it didn't matter what happened on that show because in some ways, I deserved it. I made a mistake, and at a certain point, it came time to pay for it. And I paid for it."
Part 2 of Oprah's interview with James